Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Hormones and smoking

  1. Sep 2, 2005 #1
    when you smoke there is a two stage action that takes place. It is hard to know where to start though. It is like the chicken and the egg. Take last week for instance, or maybe the last week you were a smoker. There will have been a cycle happening in your body that will have been dictated by two events. One would have been the feeling that you had to smoke and the other will have been the act of smoking. The feeling you had when you wanted a cigarette will have been caused by the increase in production of a hormone called cortisol. I now believe that this is in direct relation to inflammation in the stomach / intestinal and respatory tracts. The adrenal gland that produces cortisol reacts the same way to stress and inflamation. It pumps excessive amounts of cortisol into your system that sets off a chain reaction. It ignites the survival response, it mobilizes your body and immune system to full alert. You have no choice but to react. You cannot ignore this primitive response. Through conditioning and a miunderstanding you have learnt that by smoking a cigarette you can switch off this response. But have you switched it off or merely drowned out these feelings ? Nicotine has been found to stimulate another hormone called DHEA, This is often referred to as the 'all clear' chemical. When levels of DHEA rise it gives the impression that all is well again. This is fine when the cortisol levels are raised infrequently and due to real stress or injury but not when the levels are constantly high as they are when you are a smoker. What also happens is that to allow you to smoke your immune system has to be switched off otherwise you would cough and be sick everytime you ingested the poisions in a cigarette. By deactivating the immune system it also stops the inflamation from being an issue. However as the levels of DHEA start to naturally drop the immune system kicks back in and starts to to detect the inflamation again. This in turn means the adrenal gland starts to pump out cortisol again and the cycle begins again. This cycle happens repeatedly over the many years you are a smoker. Think about it. All those cigarettes, every day, surely there must be inflammation inside your body. This may also answer many of the questions relating to why do I not feel any better or why am I still craving. The answer may be you are not craving but experiencing a flare up of the inflamed areas in your body. This may be in direct relation to what you eat or how much sleep you have had. It has nothing to do with nicotine but everything to do with getting your body back to it's balanced state. This is also why everyone is different as everyones tollerance and healing powers are different.

    Cortisol and illness: When you smoke

    Cortisol is a hormone produced by our adrenal glands in response to mental and physical stress, and it is also the hormone our bodies use to fight inflammation. If you can imagine everytime you smoke and breath in that hot smoke it will be inevitable that inflamation will ensue. Not only that but the effect it can have on the intestinal tract can have profound effects on our homonal balance.
    Because cortisol is so important in managing our stress response and ultimate chance of survival in a fight-or-flight situation, it has an enormous effect on all of the systems in our body. However, if there is inflammation present due to smoking, the adrenal glands will respond in the same way by overproducing cortisol. This is exactly why it can cause so many system disorders. As above though by smoking you are stimulating the all clear hormane cortisol which also bypasses the immune system.

    Cortisol and illness: When you quit.

    What you have to remember is that after quitting that inflammation that has built up over a number of years will not settle down straight away. Your body an immune system is now detected this inflammation on a permanent basis now. There are no intervals of relief brought on by the nicotine stimulating DHEA. You are left to cope with these stress responses as they are. very difficult unless you fully understand what is causing them. If you believe them to be real feelings of stress and anxiety you will strugle to find a way of swictching it off, If however you tell yourself that it is only the result if the internal inflammation caused by all those years of smoking you will find it easier to cope.


    Unbalanced levels of cortisol, either too high or too low, alter the activity and chemistry of the brain and can result in depression. Of equal importance, 99% of the chemicals (neurotransmitters such as serotonin) that determine your mood are made in the intestinal tract from the food you eat, and only 1% of them are made in your brain. So if your intestinal tract is inflamed and unable to function normally, you may not be able to make enough of these chemicals to keep your moods stable.

    Fatigue, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Adrenal Exhaustion:

    Cortisol imbalances due to inflammation can cause fatigue in several ways.
    Because cortisol is designed to keep you alert in times of stress, it can cause insomnia, and the lack of quality sleep will make you tired. Cortisol also suppresses insulin production to keep the sugar available for muscles in a stress response, and can result in low blood sugar, which will also make you fatigued. Lastly, your adrenal glands can ultimately become exhausted from the constant demands placed on them to produce endless amounts of cortisol, usually as a response to chronic inflammation from a poor diet and smoking.

    Food Cravings: When you quit

    Because cortisol is meant to suppress insulin production and lower our cells’ sensitivity to insulin so that sugar is available to the muscles for a stress response, excess cortisol will cause blood sugar levels to fluctuate. Since the brain’s primary fuel is sugar in the form of glucose, any imbalance in blood sugar will cause you to crave sweets and carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, potatoes, and pastries.

    In addition, when the adrenal glands are busy producing cortisol in response to stress and/or inflammation, they cannot adequately fulfill some of their other functions, such as producing aldosterone, a hormone that regulates the body’s mineral content. This means you might be low on magnesium, which will make you crave chocolate, or salt, which will make you crave chips, olives, or other salty processed foods.

    Hypoglycemia (Low Blood Sugar): When you quit

    This occurs when high levels of cortisol are suppressing the body’s production of insulin and you can’t absorb the sugars and carbohydrates you are eating, thus resulting in low blood sugar. The symptoms of this are fatigue, headaches, mood swings and irritability, as well as a craving for more sugar, which can in turn cause weight gain and, ultimately, diabetes.

    Immune System Disorders:

    When your body is stressed and in fight-or-flight mode, it doesn’t want to expend any energy for immune system functions that are of no importance until you’ve either fought off or run away from whatever is endangering you. After the stress is over, the body assumes you may have some injuries which require an immune response to fight infected wounds, at which point the immune system kicks in again. But as long as your body is producing cortisol, even if it is just in response to inflammation, the immune system can become suppressed.

    Experiments have shown that cortisol can reduce white blood cell production by 38%, and that prolonged elevation of cortisol can damage the thymus gland which produces these immune cells.

    Insomnia: When you quit

    Cortisol has its own circadian (daily) rhythm, and should be at its highest level in the morning when we are waking up and getting started with our day; by night time it should be very low. One of cortisol’s functions is to keep us very alert in times of danger, so high levels of cortisol at night will cause insomnia.

    There are two types of insomnia. In the first, you have trouble falling asleep because the cortisol levels are already too high; in the second, you fall asleep but then wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep. This second type occurs because either the elevated level of cortisol has lowered your blood sugar too much (see Diabetes), or it’s time for your body to repair connective tissue and it realizes that the intestinal tract is inflamed and it produces cortisol in response to the inflammation.

    Weight Gain: When you quit

    This goes hand and hand with the blood sugar problem of cortisol and diabetes, because the brain’s primary fuel is glucose or sugar. If you are not able to metabolize sugar properly, your brain will demand that you eat more foods that have sugar in them to feed itself. So now you are eating high-calorie carbohydrate foods that often are high in fat, and you will gain weight. Equally bad is the fact that these types of food cause systemic inflammation and the further production of cortisol.

    These are just my finding and theories

    Information about cortisol taken from

  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 2, 2005 #2


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    Some of your statements just don't sit right with me. Could you provide some sources for your information, besides the link to the web-site, which I found particularly lacking in any specific citations of recognized scientific studies.
  4. Sep 2, 2005 #3
    1. Smoking and hormones in health and endocrine disorders
    By D Kapoor and T H Jones

    "Cigarette smoking alters the levels of endogenous steroid hormones. As discussed earlier, an acute rise in circulating cortisol is observed after smoking. Even in chronic smokers salivary free cortisol secretion has been shown to be enhanced compared with non-smokers "


    "HIGH CORTISOL indicates some form of adrenal stress (see above). Heightened cortisol production by the adrenal glands is a normal response to routine stress and essential for health; when stress is chronic and cortisol output remains high over a prolonged period (months/years), breakdown of normal tissues (muscle wasting, thinning of skin, bone loss) and immune suppression can result. Common symptoms of chronic high cortisol include sleep disturbances, fatigue, depression, weight gain in the waist, anxiety."

    3. The Nature of Stress and the Mind Body Connection
    By Douglas Fleckman

    "Increased levels of circulating cortisol can cause disturbed sleep patterns: waking in the middle of the night and unable to go back to sleep; hard to wake up in the morning or difficulty going to sleep at night. The disturbed sleep pattern prevents us from reaching deep restful and restorative sleep where the body repairs, rebuilds and replenishes. When we don’t get enough restorative sleep, we are often tired, on edge and hyper sensitive to noises or loud sounds. Another response to high circulating cortisol is the tendency for weight loss, but more often, weight gain, especially around the hips and abdomen areas, and difficulty to loose weight. The cortisol can also cause a hyper tonicity (tension or tightness) in smooth muscle tissue. One of the major smooth muscle tissues in the body is our liver and biliary tree (gall bladder and bile duct areas). This means that we could have compromised liver function do to ongoing stress. This stress response can also cause us to be more sensitive to allergic reaction and sinus flare ups leading to more frequent colds and flu. Not to mention the fact that we just don’t feel good because are energy is down."

    "Other beneficial ways to deal with stress and elevated circulating cortisol is by increasing the counter regulating hormone: DHEA. Raising the DHEA will lower the cortisol. You can accomplish this by getting full spectrum day light exposure: working near windows, spending more time outdoors, or installing full spectrum lighting over your work station or in your home environment. Going for daily walks is another way to bring up levels of the counter regulatory hormone: DHEA and lower circulating cortisol. Exercise in general will have the same effect: raise DHEA levels and lower cortisol. Be careful not to over exercise without the proper fuel and rest. Yoga and Tai Chi are other ways to help the body deal with stress. Practicing relaxation responses, meditation, and abdominal breathing also helps this beneficial hormonal response and is very peaceful and calming."

    4. A Potential Explanation of Tourette’s Syndrome
    By James Michael Howard

    "Nicotine has also been found to be useful, again for a limited time, in Tourette’s syndrome. Smoking, i.e., nicotine, increases the production of DHEA."

  5. Sep 3, 2005 #4


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    fullstopsmoking, I don't think you're using very reliable sources for your information. It's entirely irrelevant whether hormones that are produced in the brain and affect brain function are also produced elsewhere in the body, especially if they cannot cross the blood brain barrier easily. Also, when a substance is acting as a neurohormone/neurotransmitter, it only needs to be released in very small amounts, because it is acting very locally. When a substance acts as an endocrine hormone elsewhere in the body, it has to be released in much larger quantities, not because it is a more important source than the brain release of that hormone, but because it is released into the blood and quickly diluted before reaching a target organ.

    I haven't looked to verify if there is an increase in cortisol during nicotine craving (we already know the active ingredient that causes the cravings is nicotine, which itself can directly act on receptors all over the body), but you'd be hard pressed to demonstrate that it's a cause of the craving and not a consequence of the craving. Basically, you'd have to show me that if you injected a smoker with cortisol immediately after having a cigarette (perhaps someone who can go a few hours without a cigarette), that they craved the next cigarette much sooner. You would also have to show me that chain smokers have chronically elevated cortisol, since they are continuously craving. And, you'd have to show me that the rise in cortisol isn't coincident with meals, because there IS an abundant literature that demonstrates cortisol rises in anticipation of regularly scheduled meals.

    You would also have to explain to me why a non-smoker with a stomach irritation (ulcers, etc) is not constantly craving cigarettes if you're arguing it's all due to some sort of stomach/intestinal irritation. You'd also have to tell me why other people who experience high levels of stress, and the consequent high levels of cortisol, do not experience nicotine cravings. Neither of these simple observations is consistent with the ideas proposed by the sources you've read.

    Quite bluntly, those sources you've presented are ignoring 30-50 years of research. It's nothing nearly so simple as just cortisol.
  6. Sep 3, 2005 #5


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    Fullstop, you've mentioned in at least two of your posts that you are doing research in this area. Could you give us some details on this? Specifically what type of research you are referring to: lab work, clinical studies, literature research, if the latter are you using peer-reviewed journal studies or more of the popular press you previously cite? There are numerous ambiguous or confused statements in your posts that we could straighten out for you if you ask actual questions rather than drown us with over long speeches. Thanks.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook